Why are so many strangler figs home to ghosts and goblins?

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No trees are home to a more motley mix of supernatural creatures than the strangler figs, whose eerie aerial roots are adept at seizing imaginations in their grip. Diverse cultures around the world say these trees shelter angels and fairies, gods and ancestral spirits, ghosts and other malevolent creatures.

There may be a biological basis to some of these beliefs. Strangler figs attract ghostly nocturnal animals such as leathery-winged bats and small primates with big eyes that reflect moonlight. In Indonesia and Malaysia, these trees are often home to small saucer-eyed primates called tarsiers (Tarsius tarsier) whose local names mean ‘spirit animal’ or ‘spirit monkey’.

Other denizens of strangler figs are decidedly less cuddly. In the folklore of the Philippines, they include giant tree demons called kapres, goblin-like duendes and the half-human, half-horse tikbalang.

On the Japanese island of Okinawa, folk tales feature impish red-haired spirits called kijimuna that live inside the hollows of strangler figs. These mischievous sprites love to play tricks on passing people, such as sitting on their chests so they can’t breathe.

In Australia, aboriginal stories warn of an altogether more fearsome fig-dweller, the yara-ma-yha-who. This manlike creature has bulging eyes and a gaping toothless maw. When hungry it will leap out of its fig tree onto an unsuspecting traveller. Its fingers and toes end in flattened discs, through which it sucks the blood of its victims.

These are just a few of the many supernatural beings that people across Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific have said live in fig trees. As my new book Ladders to Heaven (US title: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers) explains, often these stories coincide with taboos against harming fig trees — in the image above, ghosts assail a Bengali man who made the mistake of chopping a branch from a sacred strangler fig.

Whether ancient people realised it or not, by protecting strangler figs, they were ensuring the survival of many other species of plants and animals upon which they depended. That’s because strangler figs are ecological linchpins. They produce figs year-round, sustaining a rich variety of birds and mammals that disperse the seeds of many other forest species. Without strangler figs many of these animal and plant species would simply go exinct.

So next time you see a strangler fig, fear not. The world would be a scarier place without them.

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Picture credit: Illustration by Warwick Goble from the 1912 illustrated edition of Folk-Tales of Bengal by Lal Behari Dey / Wikimedia Commons. Photo: A famous strangler fig called the Cathedral Fig in Queensland, Australia (James Niland / FlickrCreative Commons).

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‘I didn’t choose figs — They seduced me’

Howard Lovy, executive editor at US-based Foreword Reviews, recently published an interview with me about my new book. Published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers the book tells how fig trees have shaped our world, influenced diverse cultures and can help us restore life to degraded rainforests. I am reproducing the interview here with Howard’s permission.

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HL: Let’s get this question out of the way first, since many in the U.S. don’t get it. You’ve attended United Nations climate change negotiations. You’ve devoted your career to studying and writing about nature. I’m sure you’ve also spoken to some very smart people. Can you, for the record, state whether climate change is real and man-made?

MS: Yes, man-made climate change is real. The mass of scientific findings made over the past three decades shows very clearly that human activities are raising the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that this is raising the global average temperature and changing the climate. 2016 is set to be the hottest year on record.

HL: Figs and wasps depend on one another for their existence. Not to be too obvious in our metaphors, but did you choose to focus on figs because of its wider implications for humans and nature?

MS: I didn’t choose figs—they seduced me. I spent three years studying dozens of wild fig species in Borneo and Papua New Guinea. I worked in forests where fig trees play a critical role in sustaining a large proportion of the wildlife and the thousands of plant species whose seeds these creatures disperse. The biology of fig trees was fascinating enough—shaped as it is by an 80-million-year-old partnership with tiny wasps. But when I also learned the many ways fig trees have influenced our own species, I became compelled to write their story.

The more I researched, the more these trees amazed me. I firmly believe everyone should know their story, not least because it is linked to every one of us in some way. It offers a powerful lens through which we can examine our own place in nature, as well as our future and our past.

HL: What is the most unusual, or surprising, role figs have played in altering the course of human history?

MS: Well, Queen Elizabeth II was asleep up a fig tree when she inherited the throne. The Buddha attained enlightenment whilst meditating beneath one. And without figs to power their bodies, the Egyptians might never have built the pyramids. In the colonial era, Britain used sacred fig trees as gallows to hang hundreds of Indian rebels. And in Kenya, rebels used a fig tree as a secret post office to plot against the British. Fig trees have played roles in the births of biology, of agriculture and of the first great civilizations. They feature in every major religion and have influenced diverse cultures all across the planet.

I’m most interested, however, in the possibility that fig trees played a role in our evolution, feeding our pre-human ancestors a year-round diet of energy rich figs—the perfect fuel for a large primate evolving a big and complex brain.

HL: You recently told The New Yorker that you used to spend time lying beneath a fig tree and recording its visitors. An amazing number of species would come and eat. Did that tell you anything about our own place in the ecosystem?

MS: A single strangler fig can produce as many as a million figs more than once a year, and at any time of the year. They are the pop-up restaurants of the rain forest and, year-round, they attract a great variety of birds and mammals.

Two things struck me as I watched these feasts unfold. First, I had no doubt that a fruiting fig tree would have often offered a lifeline to our earliest human ancestors, the first people, whose days would have focused largely on finding food. Second, I realized how fig trees are magnets for wildlife, and how the early humans would have used them as hunting grounds, just as hunters do today in forests across the tropics. As sources of both meat and figs, such trees would have been valuable resources to protect and respect.

It is little wonder then that all around the tropics, diverse cultures have woven fig trees into their stories and have often developed taboos against felling these trees.

HL: There are, very likely bits of mummified wasp in every fig we eat. How should we feel about this?

MS: While that is certainly true of the hundreds of wild fig species, we tend to eat figs of just one species: Ficus carica. This plant is among the first that people ever cultivated for food—several thousand years ago. Over that long history farmers bred some Ficus carica varieties that no longer need wasps to produce ripe figs. So, for those varieties, there’s no trace of a wasp. Great news for vegans!

Other Ficus carica varieties do need wasps to pollinate their flowers in order for them to develop seeds, then become sweet and ripe. But the wasps are so small and so few that you really won’t notice them. By the time you eat a fig, any dead wasps will have mostly broken down into nothingness. Rest assured, when you bite into a fig, any crunch comes from fig seeds not wasp corpses.

My book —published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers tells how fig trees have shaped our world, influenced diverse cultures and can help us restore life to degraded rainforests.

Click here to read a summary and advance praise from Annie Proulx, Deborah Blum, Michael Pollan, Sy Montgomery, Fred Pearce, Simran Sethi and Thomas Lovejoy and others.

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Photo credit: A famous strangler fig called the Cathedral Fig in Queensland, Australia (James Niland / FlickrCreative Commons)

The majesty and mystery of India’s sacred banyan trees

Some 550 years ago, so a story goes, the poet-sage Kabir was on a silt island in India’s Narmada River. He was brushing his teeth with a twig. When he flung his toothbrush to the ground, up sprang a gigantic tree whose crown spread so wide it cast shade over a whole hectare of land. Today Kabir’s tree is one of the biggest plants on the planet. Its true story is no less extraordinary than the myth.

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It is a banyan (Ficus benghalensis), one of hundreds of species of fig trees. No other plants feature in so rich a mix of folklore and faith stories as the figs. And none is as awesome to behold as the banyan. Walk beneath Kabir’s tree’s crown and you will see the illusion of a forest, a tight mass of thousands of trees. But look closer and you will see that everything is connected. There is just one tree. The banyan’s Sanskrit names —nyagrodha, ‘the down-grower’ and bahupada, ‘the one with many feet’— hint at its secrets.

Many years earlier another tree had occupied the spot where Kabir’s banyan grows. That tree’s fate shifted when a bird, or perhaps a bat or monkey, passed by having fed earlier on ripe Ficus benghalensis figs. The animal pooped on the tree and condemned it to a slow death by smothering.

The animal’s droppings had delivered a banyan seed to a moist nook. Within weeks, the fig seed had split open. It sent up a firm stalk with a collar of two tiny green leaves. It sent down tiny roots that hugged the host tree as they stretched earthwards in search of soil. In time these roots would expand and enlace. They would encase the host tree and erase all trace of it.

As the banyan grew, its branches also sent out roots. They dangled like strands of unkempt hair. When they reached the ground these roots grew thick and woody and merged to form what looked like new tree trunks. The massive branches reached ever outwards, sending down yet more and more prop roots. These pillars formed increasingly wide circles around the banyan’s core, enclosing it in nested cloisters.

When British historian Thomas Maurice wrote about Kabir’s banyan in 1794, he said it had more than 350 of these false trunks, each one thicker than an English oak tree, and another 3000 smaller stems. He noted that locals said the tree was 3000 years old, suggesting it existed long before Kabir himself. This raises the possibility that it is the same banyan Alexander the Great and his army encountered on the Narmada River when they arrived in India in 326 BCE.

Alexander’s men were certainly the first Europeans known to have seen a banyan. They were amazed. The vivid descriptions they wrote down would inform Theophrastus, the father of modern botany, back home in Greece. But local people saw banyans as much more than impressive trees. The banyans had long been part of the cultural fabric. More than a thousand years earlier the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation adopted a stylised banyan as a symbol in their script. Later Vedic, Jain and Buddhist and Hindu scriptures and stories mention banyans often.

To bodies, these trees provided shelter, food and medicines to treat dozens of disorders. To minds, they formed bridges to the supernatural. Gods and spirits moved among their leaves and pillar roots. By 500 BCE, Hindu texts described a cosmic ‘world tree’, a banyan that grew upside down with its roots in the heavens. Its trunk and branches reached to Earth to bring blessings to humankind.

The banyan became a potent symbol of fertility, life and resurrection. It features in Hindu stories of the universe’s periodic death and rebirth, when everything that exists dissolves into a ceaseless sea. One story says an ‘undying’ banyan is the only thing to survive the deluge. Another says that to ride the sea’s currents, the god Vishnu assumes the form of a baby, lying on his back on a raft formed of a banyan leaf. With one breath the baby swallows all that surrounds it, taking the turbulent universe into the safety of his stomach before exhaling it into fresh existence.

These symbols of life became agents of death after the British arrived in India and began to use them as gallows to execute rebels who resisted their rule. By the 1850s, there had been multiple occasions when they hanged over a hundred men to death from a single banyan. India restored dignity to these trees when it gained independence and made the banyan its national tree.

While the British knew these trees by name, Alexander’s army would not have heard the word banyan. The name only arose more than a thousand years later when Portuguese visitors to India modified the Gujarati word vaniyan, meaning merchant. They named the tree banyan after the traders who set up their stalls in its shade.

A banyan is a natural meeting place, a vast umbrella of dark green leathery leaves that blocks out the sun or showers of rain. These trees form the centrepiece of many villages. Entire cities have even grown up around these trees. Vadodara in western India is one example. It is thought to derive its name from the Sanskrit word vatodar, meaning ‘in the heart of the banyan tree’. Asia’s oldest stock exchange, the Bombay Stock Exchange, was also born beneath a banyan in Mumbai where stockbrokers would gather in the 1850s.

In cities today, the banyans are curtailed by construction or cut down to make way for roads. But if left in peace, there is little to stop a banyan expanding. The biggest one on record exceeds even Kabir’s tree. It is said to have begun life in 1434 at the spot where a woman called Thimmamma died when she threw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre. The tree, in Andhra Pradesh, now covers two hectares. Twenty thousand people can shelter beneath its crown.

All this from a seed that is just a couple of millimetres in length. Crack one open with your thumbnail and you won’t find much inside, yet the genetic material within has the power to create a tree vast enough to resemble a small forest. Ancient Hindu sages employed this paradox in a parable, which used the imperceptible power within a banyan seed as a parallel of atman, the invisible essence Hindus say permeates and sustains the universe and all it contains.

The banyan’s power reaches deep into our world. Like all fig species, these trees depend on specific wasps to enter their figs and pollinate the flowers hidden within. A side effect of this relationship is that banyan figs are available all year round. They offer a lifeline to birds, fruit bats, monkeys and other creatures, which in turn disperse the seeds of hundreds of tree species, planting the forests of the future. The banyans truly are trees of life.

This post was first published on 21 September 2016 by Newsweek. It is an edited extract of my new book Ladder to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future, published by Unbound on 8 September 2016. Chelsea Green Publishing will publish an edition for the United States and Canada in November 2016, with the new title Gods, Wasps and Stranglers.

Photo credit: Chad Husby / Flickr (Creative Commons)

How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future

After many years of research, writing, illustrating, re-writing and more re-writing, my book Ladders to Heaven is about to be printed.

The publication date is 8 September 2016, but anyone pre-ordering a copy through Unbound will get their book before it reaches the shops, as soon as it is ready. And if you order by midnight (UK time) on 2 June 2016 you will be listed as a patron in the back of the book.

Here’s a preview of the book’s cover and summary text, and a montage of its 20 illustrations, which are available as prints via Unbound.

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Chapter-by-chapter preview of my book Ladders to Heaven

Here is an outline of each chapter of Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future, the book I am crowdfunding through publisher Unbound. There’s a 10th chapter that I haven’t mentioned yet. That’s a secret for now.

If you like what you see, please considering reserving a copy. Everyone who does will have their name printed in each edition of the book. To watch a short video about the book, read a synopsis and summary, or to order a copy, visit the Unbound site.

Chapter 1: Trees of Life, Trees of Knowledge

I will show you how fig trees inspired the co-founder of the theory of evolution, how they feature in the creation myths of diverse religions and cultures, and how these two facts are connected.

Chapter 2: A Long Seduction

I will show you how people have revered one special fig species in Asia for more than 5000-years. You will meet the Buddha and a bloodthirsty dictator. I will tell the tale of a fig tree that has travelled thousands of kilometres and been made a king, has helped spread a philosophy of peace and had its flesh torn by hot bullets during a brutal massacre.

Chapter 3: Banyans and Botanical Monkeys

You hear how fig trees influence the founders of biology, more than 2300 years ago in Greece, and how Alexander the Great encountered a fig tree in India that was big enough to shelter thousands of his soldiers. I will tell the story of a 20th century fig biologist whose extraordinary drive to botanise had him labelled a traitor and a spy.

Chapter 4: Sex and Violence in the Hanging Gardens

You will find out how an 80-million year-old partnership between fig trees and tiny wasps will influence the fates of forests and wildlife across the tropics. This story is surely one of the most astounding in all of biology. It is one of the most important as well, for without these tiny creatures and their interactions with fig trees, the world as we know it would not exist.

Chapter 5: Struggles for Existence

I’ll show tell you the story of the ancient relationship between birds called rhinoceros hornbills and the giant fig trees whose seeds they disperse. Both partners face extreme challenges in their bid to survive and reproduce. Their solutions have knock-on effects on thousands of other species.

Chapter 6: Goodbye to the Gardeners, Hello to the Heat

I’ll take you to Borneo where I lived in a national park for 18 months studying dozens of wild fig species and the animals that disperse their seeds. I’ll explain how climate change, hunting and deforestation threaten the 80-million year long reign of the fig trees, and what this could mean for us.

Chapter 7: From Dependence to Domination

I’ll show you how fig trees played crucial roles in human evolution and cultural development, as sources of food, medicine and more. The figs were influencing our ancestors long before they descended from the trees. You will meet dinosaurs and ape-men, ancient royals and strange spirits, pharaohs and farmers. I will explain timeless wisdom of letting fig trees stand tall.

Chapter 7: The War of the Trees

I will explain the ecological and cultural reasons fig trees played many curious roles in the struggle for Kenyan independence. You will find out how fig trees connect a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a rum smuggler, Queen Elizabeth II, a prophet and the most wanted man in the British Empire.

Chapter 9: Once Destroyed, Forever Lost?

I’ll show you how fig trees could give yet provide us with their greatest gifts if we learn the lessons their biology can teach. I will tell you about a terrifying Time of Darkness, take you to volcanoes where fig trees have helped rebuild forests and share the story of a scientist with a vision of robots in rainforests.

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Snakes and ladders and tantalising figs

… an extract from the prologue of my book — published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers.

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The figs were big orange beacons that lured me from afar. The snake was lime green and venomous and just centimetres from my face.

I met them both near the top of a tree, about 35 metres above the ground in a Bornean rainforest. While the snake was safely coiled on a sturdy branch, I had only some sweat soaked fingers to save me from a fall. My heart raced. The snake’s unblinking eyes looked as patient as time.

The year was 1998 and I was falling headlong into a fascinating story. Its stars are the fig trees — the 750 or so Ficus species. Over millions of years they have shaped our world, driven our evolution, nourished our bodies and fed our imaginations.

The best could be yet to come. These plants could help us restore ravaged rainforests, limit climate change and stem the loss of wild species. They could build vital bridges between religions, and between scientific and faith-based worldviews.

Their story reminds us of what we all share and warns us of what we could lose. But these plants are under threat. We risk running out of time to learn the many lessons they have to teach us.

*

In Greek mythology a branch laden with sweet figs was among the temptations that teased the demigod Tantalus during his punishment in the Underworld. Each time Tantalus reached for the figs, a wind wrenched the tree’s bough beyond his reach. This tale gifted English the verb to tantalise.

Those dull orange figs in Borneo, with their guardian snake, seemed set to elude me too. I hungered to have them, though I had no desire to eat their flesh.

The figs adorned the stubby branches of a Ficus aurantiaca. This species relies heavily on primates to eat its figs and disperse the tiny seeds within. But in this particular forest Ficus aurantiaca was a plant with problems.

First, there were few primates left in the area. The national park I was in was an island of ancient forest at whose edges lapped a sea of oil-palm plantations, farms and logging concessions.

These man-made habitats posed dangers to primates and other wildlife. Like the national park itself, they were often visited by shotgun-toting hunters for whom a monkey or a gibbon would be a prize kill.

But even if primates had been abundant, something else was wrong. Like all fig species Ficus aurantiaca depends on a specific kind of tiny wasp to pollinate its flowers. That year, however, an intense drought killed off these insects.

Across the national park the same problem had stricken many other species of figs too. No pollinators meant no seeds to create a new generation of Ficus plants. It meant no ripe figs to feed hungry animals. And that would have knock-on effects for the other plants whose seeds these creatures dispersed, and for the other animals that depended on those plants.

The local extinction of tiny wasps had impacts that rippled across the forest ecosystem. That’s why the Ficus aurantiaca figs I spotted that day had made me incautious. I had never seen so many of that species before and I needed to know what was going on inside them. All that lay between my curiosity and the answers I sought was that poisonous snake and the risk of a long fall.

I was hanging on to a ladder that somebody had attached vertically to the trunk of the tree. The ladder was the last of seven that stood toes-to-shoulders, each one flush to the tree.

As I tried to maintain my grip on the metal rungs, an intense wave of vertigo paralysed me. For a moment I could no longer sense my own body. It was as if my mind was all that existed of me, and it scrambled to process the sudden danger. I held my breath. It was a long way down but I needed those figs and that meant I had to let go of the ladder with one hand to reach past the snake.

*

Tantalus never got his figs but I got mine. As I plucked each one and shoved it into my pocket, sticky latex —whiter than milk — oozed from the plant’s wounds. This gummy sap is common to all fig species. It deters insects from feeding on them and speeds recovery from wounds.

Throughout history people have discovered ways to make the latex work for them. They have smeared it on branches to catch birds, curdled milk with it to make cheese, processed it to make rubber and used it as an aphrodisiac.

I was glad of the latex that day. It covered my hands and strengthened my grip as I lowered myself down the chain of ladders and entered the murky forest again. The snake had not moved a single scale.

It may seem strange to spend time and take risks in search of rare figs but by the time I met that snake in 1998 I had come to understand three things: that fig trees can play critical roles in rainforests and other ecosystems; that they have influenced the development of diverse human cultures; and that today we are both destroying the former functions and forgetting the latter.

Back then the science was fascinating enough. But I was learning too about a chain of reverence towards fig trees that coils back in time for many thousands of years and encircles almost the entire globe.

Fig trees appear in mythologies in the Amazon and in Africa, across the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and from the foothills of the Himalayas to the islands of the South Pacific. They feature in some way in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism and Sikhism. They star in the stories of Krishna and Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed and a host of other gods and prophets.

Fig trees were inspiring, sustaining and even protecting our ancestors long before they invented writing or domesticated the dog. They were pivotal in the birth of agriculture nearly 12,000 years ago and are among the most nutritious of foods we eat today.

Our shared story stretches back beyond the origin of human settlements, back to before the birth of our species, and back to before the day our ape-like ancestors descended from the trees and walked upright for the first time around seven million years ago. In fact, fig species had begun to interact with our ancestors long before they climbed the trees in the first place – back when the closest things to modern humans were the small shrew-like creatures that scampered in the shadows of the dinosaurs.

My book Ladders to Heaven (Gods, Wasps and Stranglers) explains why. It is a story of life and death and of a deal undone. Its cast includes kings and queens, gods and prophets, flying foxes and botanical monkeys. It features scientific wonders and religious miracles, all born from biology that seems almost impossible in its elegance.

Most of all it is a story about the connections between humanity and nature, and what the loss of those links can mean. The story stretches back tens of millions of years to the age of the dinosaurs but is as relevant to our future as to our past. As our planet’s climate changes and reminds us that nature really does matter, the story has important lessons for us all.

More about the book:

My book —published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers tells how fig trees have shaped our world, influenced diverse cultures and can help us restore life to degraded rainforests.

Click here to read a summary and advance praise from Annie Proulx, Deborah Blum, Michael Pollan, Sy Montgomery, Fred Pearce, Simran Sethi and Thomas Lovejoy and others.

Photo credits: Bornean Keeled Green Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus subannulatus) juvenile (Bernard Dupont/Creative Commons). Ficus aurantiaca (Ahmad Fuad Morad / Creative Commons)